Since the end of the Cold War, China, as well as much of East Asia, experienced large strides in political, economic, and cultural growth. China’s increasing development and rising assertiveness has brought the international community to the edge of their seats waiting to see how American will respond next: with cooperation or conflict. The mission of the 2017 G20 conference calls all countries to pursue mutual interdependencies, but China’s rise as a global power and growing economic presence has resulted in a palpable rise in Beijing’s ambitious interests that foster severe tensions with other Asian countries as well as a hegemonic relationship with the United States. Based on China’s impactful history, international relations, and domestic politics, and economic feats, U.S. policymakers should be wary that conflict with China is possible but certainly not inevitable.
Economic revolution and industrialization was slow to hit China compared to other “dragons,” or developing East Asian countries, like Japan, South Korea, and Singapore. Eventually, modernization took root, generating rapid transformation in approximately sixty years. China and the East Asia region stood out from other emerging countries by developing at a rate of 10% growth/year, compared to the 3% growth in Latin America, for example. Much of China’s economic growth can be attributed to its pivot towards free market principles. According to Warren Cohen, the greatest move Beijing made was the decision in the late 1970s “to abandon self-reliance and to seek the rapid modernization of their industry through increased contact with the outside world.”
Under Deng Xiao Ping, credited with being the greatest advocator of opening China to the world, China began accepting foreign loans, aid, and various international investments. Other countries, particularly the West, were eager to explore China’s vast market and invest in industries that would benefit from China’s massive low-wage, nonunionized workforce. At this point in China, many citizens recognized the new structure of government and economy, perceived new flexibility, and desired not only wages but also skills and careers. As a result, people from all over China accepted industrial jobs, spurring Chinese production and technological advancement. With the large labor force and international exposure, China became a leading export industry with the United States as its principle market, despite tensions over Taiwan. Ultimately, this switch to export-led growth contributed to China’s rapid development by concentrating on developing domestic export industries capable of competing in overseas market.
Coupling with China’s economic rise is China’s climbing ambition. As evinced in Beijing’s recent maneuvers in the South China Sea (including China’s maritime construction activity on seven new artificial islands and an increased military presence on the Sea and on the coast), China is certainly not as timid in pursuing its national interests as it was once before. This is largely attributed to historical and cultural factors that pervade Chinese logic and strategy planning today. A major impact on this ideology is the Century of Humiliation, which refers to the period of intervention and imperialism by Western powers and Japan in China. This Century of Humiliation began in the mid-19th century with that start of the First Opium War and continued to include other weakening and demoralizing catastrophes, including unequal treaties, a Second Opium War, the Sino-Japanese Wars, and, arguably, the Korean War. While an exact end to China’s “humiliation” is vaguely defined, China is fueled by their shameful past and often refers to this period as a nationalistic method to validate and legitimize China’s right to defend its sovereignty and regain its position as a world power through particularly bold and assertive behavior.
With this recent ambitious character in mind, one must consider to what point will Beijing flex its muscles to get what it wants and–as far as Xi Jing Ping is concerned–deserves. Policymakers in America are confronted with the reality of engaging in conflict with China. One option in dealing with a rivaling power to the United States is to decidedly not forcing them to be a rival. Instead, the U.S. could mold China into the ranks of being a world power alongside America, Britain, etc. According to Aaron Friedberg however, accepting China as an equal participant in maintaining world order and thus generating a multipolar global system would be catastrophic. Multiple centers of power, especially fundamentally different sources of power as in the case of China and the U.S./other Western nations, would induce a complexity that would make slow progress in confronting even shared threats. Such miscalculations will and have contributed to war.
Policymakers should also be cautious of what lies within the belly of the Chinese dragon. China’s tumultuous past has made those in leadership in Beijing exceptionally fearful of instability. Ironically, that fear and constant maintenance of stability has spawned recklessness in their own hands. According to Susan Shirk, the desire to please the Chinese people has encouraged rash decisions and policymaking without consideration for larger, international consequences. In addition, China has exhibited a proclivity for showing two faces of Chinese power: 1) cautious and responsible in order to promote growth and stability and 2) aggressively risky and nationalistic for the sake of defending China’s national honor. Should China become a dominant world power in the future, today’s world must be on constant alert for what sudden policy chances and actions it commits. Such rash decisions will have monumental consequences as China continues its rise, spurring instability with more instability: the perfect incubation environment for disastrous results.
While conflict is possible with China, U.S. policymakers should note that war is not inevitable. China’s rise cannot be ignored; therefore, the United States must react and plan a long-term strategy to peacefully incorporate China into an environment that allows it to make vital decisions. As mentioned before, China’s domestic instability is of major concern. In order to combat that unpredictability, the U.S., along with its allies, must create a Western order that is inclusive and institutionalized. This will help ensure that if (or when) the U.S. loses dominance, China will wield its power within the confinements of rules and institutions that the United States and its partners have created, preserving the interests of all nations in the future.
Many of these institutions are already in place. For example, China is currently a member of The International Monetary Fund and World Trade Organization. The rules and regulations not only keep China in check but also are a tremendous benefit to China’s economic and trade relations. Echoing John Ikenberry’s theory, liberalization and a liberal world order is key for China’s continue growth. Entering in war with the U.S. or otherwise engaging in conflict will have a far greater ripple effect, damaging the economy of China as well as the rest of the world. This is a salient point in predicting the likelihood of Chinese aggression. On the other hand, while China seems to be engaging relatively smoothly within the Western system, China has made strides in creating its own Asian order with organizations like ASEAN and ASEAN+3. By establishing institutions without U.S. involvement, China creates the appearance of increasing its participation in international organizations while also formulating its own exclusive sources of trade and alliance in Asia. While this might be of some concern considering these institutions were not pre-ordained by the U.S., the countries involved in such organizations also have a heavy dependency on the West and are unlikely to act contrary to the agreements from which they benefit.
Ultimately, the factors attributing to China’s rise as a global power are largely economic and political. China’s transformation into an industrialized society was the result of export-led growth that made China’s products available all over the world. Free market principles and policies combined with a large workforce revved up China’s economy and political ability to rise to the power pedestal it relishes today. Stemming from China’s confidence in its economic prowess is its rising ambition to pursue national interests, domestically and abroad. With the ghost of a traumatizing past still haunting Chinese society, Beijing seeks to legitimize its authority and secure its right to be a global power. Lastly, when determining how the U.S. should respond to China’s rise, it is necessary to know that while conflict is possible, it is not inevitable. China’s fear of instability, intense nationalism, and tendency for rash decisions make China’s apt for conflict with the U.S. However, measures can be made today to ensure that when China reaches their goal of global dominance, the Western world order has created a system that institutionalizes the interests of all nations involved, keeping China open to those interests while shaping an interconnected world. These institutions are and will be a great advantage for China, which has benefitted from the economic tries and growth from free trade, aid, etc. Whether we determine a rising China to be friend or foe is ultimately up to the policy decisions we make today, forging a place for China in a new, peaceful, and cooperative world order.
About the author: Bailey Piazza is Diplomatic Courier magazine’s Washington, DC-based Correspondent.